Building a Fantasy World XIV: Player’s Guide

After laboriously establishing the details of your fantasy world, you’ll (hopefully) have a chance to introduce it to your players and run a campaign in your sparkly new world. The adventures have been hooked, the NPCs have been named, all the flavour has been added, and the starting area is ready. Now your players just have to create characters that fit the world, characters who appropriately interact with the campaign as inhabitants and not outsiders.

This can be extremely tricky and “bad” characters who are poor fits for the world can break the campaign as easily as anything the GM does. You can carefully craft a grim world where halflings are embittered and broken slaves but if a player shows up with a happy-go-lucky halfling bard the world isn’t going to feel right.

However, if you don’t tell the players halflings are a slave race then it’s not the player’s fault. It’s important to communicate your world to your players. The “how” is the trick…

There are a lot of great players out there, but not every player lives and breathes the hobby. Many are casual gamers who only think about the game when seated at the table, not even looking at their characters between sessions. Others live busy lives and struggle to find time to balance work and a home life. Some are just lazy. Getting campaign information to all these disparate types of players is tricky.

Ideally, the best ways is to sit down for a Q-and-A session with your players. But this is time consuming and has the real potential of sounding like a sermon or lecture, or consuming time potentially spent actually playing. And it’s very unlikely your players will delve in an expansive campaign wiki, let alone absorb & memorize its contents. The best compromise between information, free time, and attention spans is to write a Player’s Guide.

Table of Contents

This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below

Introduction
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous

Sample Guides

There have been few really good Player’s Guides published over the years.

In 2nd Edition attempts were made (for the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance) but these were usually just reprints of campaign setting books with the crunch removed. 4th Edition had a few Player’s Guides to campaign settings, but as hardcover books these were pricey and had a high crunch quotient, feeling more like generic accessories than world guidebooks.

For his Ptolus campaign world, Monte Cook provided a Player’s Guide, which was really just the first chapter of the Ptolus hardcover. It’s an excellent introduction to the campaign but clocking in at over thirty pages it’s a bit hefty. It can still serve as an example and is available free online.

To gauge interest in their setting, Paizo published a small 64-page softcover book describing their campaign setting. While this is often used as a player’s guide, it was intended for DMs as the first dedicated Golarion product, the precursor to the mammoth hardcover(s) detailing the Inner Sea.

The best examples of a Player’s Guide might be the free PDFs put out by Paizo for their Adventure Paths. The early ones (still 3.5e) often had a mix of world and adventure material, both introducing players to the world and prepping them for the individual campaign.

Getting Started

As a Player’s Guide is going to be read by other people things like grammar, spelling, legibility, and proper sentences count. Prior to now readability has been optional: as long as you could read your own world notes clarity didn’t matter. Player’s Guides are different.

General writing tips apply here: read, edit, re-read, edit, run it through a spellchecker, and edit some more. Try reading it aloud. Set it down for a week or two and then read it again to see if it still makes sense. And when in doubt, cut text. Remove sentences. Don’t write a page when a paragraph will suffice. Don’t write a paragraph when you can get by with a sentence.

Your players are much more likely to read your guide if it isn’t a 30-page monstrosity. Plus paper and ink cost money and players are more likely to read your booklet if it’s not going to cost them much to do so.

Format

How you present a Player’s Guide is largely irrelevant so long as the players can access it. Player’s Guides can be a Text document, a PDF, or a wiki.

However, something that can be emailed is easier to get to your player’s than a website, and a hard copy physical that can be physically handed over is even better. If possible make the documents available in a few different places and work to your player’s preferences. For example, if your table all has tablets, PDFs are just as easy to use as paper documents, but having a hard copy for the table and a digital copy e-mailed to them (or kept on a shared Dropbox folder) makes referencing easy.

However, you know your group best. If they’re involved in the game and active between sessions maybe you can get away with an expansive wiki. If they’re casual players who seldom respond or fully read emailed reminders of upcoming games then a face-to-face meeting might work better. And quite often you’ll have a mix of players at your table and have to respond to the majority or try a couple different methods.

Introduction

Start with a description of the world. Keep it short and sweet. This is the movie trailer synopsis, the “In a world where…” description of the campaign. There’s no need to go into the history or details, just the current events and generic state of the world. You don’t need to explain the “why” of the hook, just set-up the hook itself.

This is where you’re selling your world, where you’re convincing the players they were right to let you GM. Make it awesome. Don’t be afraid to have some mysteries or unanswered questions. These can easily be answered at length in person (if approached) or during the course of the campaign.

This is also where the basic problems of the campaign (if any) might be introduced. This might be a looming threat or just a topical issue. But it’s good to get some small establishment of the problems leading into the campaign. While a Player’s Guide can be an excellent place to slip some foreshadowing, this has to be done carefully. Unless it feels relevant it’s inclusion might make it too obvious.

Building Characters

Once the introduction is over, jump right into making characters. You cannot guarantee players will read everything, so get the important information to them before their attention span wanes or free time lapses.

This is a good place to tuck character creation rules (point buy, starting gold, usable books) as well as world-specific information. The Character Creation section can also serve as a series of potential character hooks; players uncertain what type of character to make can become inspired by a bit if world lore. Such as a player reading that halflings are embittered and broken slaves deciding that a grim and morose halfling is right up their alley.

This section should include a paragraph or two about the assorted races describing how they’re different. You don’t need to describe what an elf is, but instead what your elves are like and what makes them different and interesting. It’s important to include what the average member if a race is like, so players can be aware of how to create a typical (or atypical) member of that race as well as how their chosen race is perceived by the world at large.

You can also include details on specific classes where relevant, how they fit into your world and any special roles, restrictions, or differences. This might include references to organizations and factions, as well as some nations. Other characters options (archetypes or backgrounds) can also be included here depending on the game or needs of the world.

House Rules

It’s a good idea to include any new or alternate rules in your Player’s Guide. Codifying house rules makes it easier for the players to learn as well as reference in play. This is important so it feel less like these rules are being sprung on an unsuspecting table, or are some secret the GM is keeping behind the screen to change on a whim or use as a beat stick to keep players in line.

Players also need to be familiar with house rules to know how they will affect their choices. If they can’t refer to the specific wording of a house rule, it might make it harder to build and level up character or choose options or powers.

Gazetteer

The final part of making a player’s guide is writing a gazetteer, otherwise known as the world guide. It’s very easy to provide too much information that will never be read, but at the same time you want to enable players who wish to delve a little deeper into world lore. This might be necessary for character creation; players might also want to know where elves and dwarves come from, where there might be barbarians, who trains monks, and the like.

Unless all the players are starting in an isolated area cut off from the outside world, the Player Characters should know something about the world, such as details of the nation they live in, it’s neighbors, and current political situation.

As always, player’s don’t need to know everything about a land, just the basic details and common knowledge. The farther you get from the starting area of the campaign, the less players need to know. They should know the most about the starting area, half a page should be plenty. Details should get increasingly vague further from the starting region with a couple paragraphs on the local nation, a paragraph on neighboring regions, and a sentence or two after that.

It helps if you’re writing down your world electronically, either in a Word Processor or a Wiki. This lets you cut-and-paste text for your players; if you’ve already written a description of a nation, you don’t need to do it again. Time saved rewriting text is time that can be spent working on another part of worldbuilding. Or at the pub.

A more lengthy option is to provide a bare bones gazetteer with a sentence or two on each location but also providing a follow-up document that expands on the locales for interested players. If providing a second expanded world gazetteer after it is permissible to go a little longer. As this isn’t something the players are expected to read there’s less obligation. Once something becomes less of a forced task and more an option it suddenly becomes more appealing. It’s also something they can look at when they have a question. It’s a reference tool; if an NPC is from a region they can quickly look it up.

A wiki helps with this, as you can have one page that summarizes a region while also providing easy links to expanded pages. There are any number of free (or cheap) wiki sites that you can use to detail your world, including a couple dedicated to tabletop gaming  (such as Obsidian Portal and Epic Words). Although,  hard copies might be easier to reference at the table.

Addendumfront-Cover

A compilation of this on Worldbuilding Blog Series, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is now available.  The blogs have been updated, edited, and expanded, so the final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

 Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is available in Print on Demand and electronically. The electronic copy is available on KoboKindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspace and Amazon.

Learn how to: sculpt a continent, design a nation, plan a city or village, create a Pantheon, and build your world! Designed for use by fantasy tabletop role-playing gamers (especially those using the world’s oldest RPG system) but also useful for novelists, creative types, and people with too much free time.

The original blogs aren’t going anywhere, and will remain available for free on the website indefinitely. But if you want an offline or improved version (or support me spending over a year of my life typing away advice) feel free to purchase a copy and earn my enduring gratitude.